If you’ve been following my beginner’s guide, you’ve read about how I suggest introducing yourself to Bowie and slowly wading into this music and videos in a rough order. If you haven’t been following the series, click here.
So now I’m going to tell you what to avoid. For some reason, I occasionally find it fun to write about the worst of Bowie. I find something of value in vast majority of Bowie’s music, but even he came up short on occasion. I’ll save an updated “worst of Bowie” for a later post, but by way of example, I’ll list 10 infamous Bowie songs at the end of this post.
Before that, though, here are some albums to avoid. Cutting to the chase, in my view, only David Bowie is without any merit whatsoever, except as a historical curiosity. I actually find something to like in all the other albums, but based on fan and critical reaction, its safe to say these should be on the bottom of your list:
1. David Bowie (1967). Bowie’s hapless self-titled debut album. It’s weird, but not in a good way. The 20-year old Bowie thought it was a good idea to record a bunch of music-hall style story songs complete with sound effects like him sneezing and medieval instruments rather than, you know, an electric guitar. The result is awful. Stay far away from this one.
2. Tonight (1984). Although I actually like this album, and there’s a fair chance you know some of its songs (the title track, “Loving the Alien,” “Blue Jean”) many critics and fans think of this as his absolute worst. You might like it, but a lot of people don’t, so why take the risk?
3. Tin Machine and Tin Machine II (1989 and 1991). Trying to make a clean break from the mid-80s, Bowie decided to become one of four members in a band. Tin Machine ended up putting out two studio albums that contained a mix of proto-grunge, hyper-masculine and preachy songs, along with a few songs that seem more like something Bowie might have released on his own. Again, I am among those who like Tin Machine, but many fans try hard to forget this phase of Bowie’s career.
4. Never Let Me Down (1987). Along with Tonight, this is a leading contender for Bowie’s most critically disparaged album. Over time I have come to appreciate Never Let Me Down, and despite the poor reviews, it sold well at the time. That said, its reputation as ironically being a let down comes from somewhere and you have better things to do with your time than listen to this record over and over until you come to appreciate its finer points.
5. Hours… (1999). In my mind, this album marked a turning point for Bowie where he stopped making music aimed at younger people and accepted that both he and his audience were firmly in middle age. But he hadn’t quite figured out how to make the transition. The result has both some rich and meaningful songs, like, “Thursday’s Child,” “Seven,” and “Survive,” but also some gimmicky stinkers like “What’s Really Happening” and “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” (OK, not an abject stinker, but Bowie could do better). This also contains what might be Bowie’s worst late-period song, “If I’m Dreaming My Life,” which is so turgid it almost sinks the entire album.
6. Baal EP (1982). If you are a fan of Bertolt Brecht, search for this hard-to-find EP. If you aren’t a Brecht fan, or, more likely don’t know who Brecht was, stop looking. Bowie’s voice is great, but this is a far departure from the type of rock music that brings most people to Bowie in the first place. And that’s saying something considering how much Bowie changed up his style.
7. Love You Til Tuesday (1984). I almost didn’t include this because it is much like one of the many oddball compilations that exist out there but aren’t really part of Bowie’s official catalogue. Actually, I’m not sure if this formally makes the cut, but it is a document of a coherent project Bowie put together in 1969, before becoming famous. Love You Til Tuesday was a compilation of promotional films— music videos before (I think) they were called music videos. It also exists as a soundtrack, which is what I’m referring to here. Though the collection includes an early version of “Space Oddity,” most of the songs are either from David Bowie are of that ilk, which is to say, no good. There’s a reason it took 15 years before it was released in record form.
8. Toy (2021). You may have noticed that this album was released in 2021, five years after Bowie’s death. The reason— I’m simplifying matters— the reason is it is so bad that Bowie couldn’t find anyone to release it while he was alive. Those bad albums from the 60s— David Bowie and Love You Til Tuesday— Bowie decided to try to resuscitate some of the songs from that era in 2000. He made some improvements but couldn’t get around the low quality of the songs themselves. Just because these are not the worst versions of the songs does not make the songs good. They aren’t.
I’m not going to artificially make this a top 10 list, but I can say that there are plenty of nonsensical compilation albums, bad bootlegs and substandard live albums (especially some of those released after Bowie’s death). Better to stick to my beginners guide.
Those are some albums to avoid. If you want to see what I mean without investing in an entire album, here are some examples of some infamously bad Bowie songs that serve as representative samples of what make the above albums worth avoiding:
1. “Buzz the Fuzz” (1970). A cover of comedic songwriter Biff Rose’s novelty song about a cop who becomes a drug dealer. And there was much merriment.
2. “Chilly Down” (1986). Bowie wrote this song for the Labyrinth soundtrack but doesn’t sing it himself. A good thing, too. Its performed by muppets in the movie, but the piece is beneath even their talents.
3. “The Laughing Gnome” (1967). Another comedic novelty song, this one features Bowie making bad gnome-related puns and playing with studio equipment that made him sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Frequently mentioned as Bowie’s most infamous song.
4. “Over the Wall We Go” (1966). Another novelty song that’s supposed to be funny. This one is about a prison break. Not that this is well known at all, but the relatively better known version of this song was performed by someone calling himself Oscar. Too bad it wasn’t Oscar the Grouch because this song belongs in the trash.
5. “The Revolutionary Song” (1979). This is a largely instrumental piece of music included on the soundtrack of Bowie’s much-panned movie, Just a Gigolo. The lyrics consist of “la-la” and maybe there’s a la-la-ing” in there. A thankfully shortened version is on my edition of the Christiana F soundtrack.
6. “Too Dizzy” (1987). Bowie was so disappointed with his own work that he had this song stricken from subsequent reissues of Never Let Me Down. Since that album has the reputation of being one of Bowie’s worst, this song is often thought of as the worst of the worst. It isn’t quite that, but its far from great.
7. “God Only Knows” (1984). Bowie’s cover of The Beach Boys song on Tonight is considered by Bowie chronicler Nicholas Pegg as “perhaps the worst track he has ever recorded.” I have to admit that I actually like it, but I’ in a distinct minority.
8. “Stateside” (1991). Speaking of Nicholas Pegg, he considers this Tin Machine misfire “a close contender with Tonight’s ‘God Only Knows’ as the very worst items in Bowie’s recorded history.” And unlike “God Only Knows,” we don’t even get Bowie doing most of the singing. The (dis)honor goes to the band’s drummer, Hunt Sales. In truth, had this song been on a Hunt Sales album I’m sure it wouldn’t have generated as much hate as it has on an album that nobody bought to hear Hunt Sales sing.
9. “Uncle Arthur” (1967). There are many contenders for the designation of worst song on Bowie’s debut album. “Uncle Arthur” is a legitimate contender for that distinction, but even if you think, say, “Please Mr. Gravedigger” or “Rubber Band” is worse, what was Bowie thinking when he decided to open his first album with this uninspiring piece of music about a loser?
10. Sweet Head (1971). Could this song possibly be so overt as its name implied? Yes. Yes it can. Recorded during or around the time of the Ziggy Stardust sessions, this unsubtle shock-song was kept secret until it turned up on the 1990 reissue of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It should have stayed hidden.